Chronicle of the Future The Ends of the Earth
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Apocalyptic anxieties - ban the bomb

That is precisely why we love the apocalypse. It is a story with a moral: the bad guys - all of us - get their comeuppance. Sins are punished, a circle is closed. And before it comes, it gives people a purpose. They can cry "Repent!" and wear sandwich boards on Oxford Street, or they can fight to save the environment, or campaign to Ban the Bomb. In an age whose affluence has given us everything but purpose, the old tale of the end time rushes in to fill the vacuum.

Some of the apocalyptic anxieties that proliferated in the 1960s and 70s have now receded. The end of the cold war has meant that a full-blooded nuclear confrontation is now improbable - though a nuclear strike by terrorists or a rogue state is now more likely than ever. Biological anxieties about murderous, artificially altered organisms have so far proved groundless - though we are more ignorant than the multinational food companies like to admit about the real impact of genetic engineering. And artificial intelligence turned out to be one of the most over-hyped technological promises of all time. Forty years after the first frenzied forecasts were made, we are still nowhere near a thinking machine, nor are we close to a convincing explanation of what thought is. The fears remain, and resurface from time to time, but they have lost their edge.

One effect of this has been to drive those most drawn to the idea of the apocalypse to the more extreme and irrational claims of cults. The approach of the new millennium, with all the ancient magic attached to the idea of the 1000-year period, has inspired a wave of end-time ecstasy. There was David Koresh and the conflagration at Waco in Texas. There was Shoko Asahara with his gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. There was the group suicide in San Diego by people who thought they were going to be carried off in an alien spacecraft. Many more such stories will emerge between now and the end of the year. One Anglican university chaplain I met was dreading the dozens of cases of bewildered and vulnerable students he would have to handle in 1999 - students are especially open to the influence of the cultists.

One reason these cults are so difficult to oppose is that their beliefs are, in some respects, close to those of the mainstream churches. In America, in particular, Christianity tends to be fundamentalist and to believe in the literal truth of the end time as promised in the book of Revelation. Since that particular end time speaks of the millennium as the era of Christ's reign on Earth, some have taken this to mean that Christ will arrive in 2000. Meanwhile, rapidly growing Christianity in Korea is distinctly apocalyptic. Even some Catholics share the view that we are approaching a climax of the historical process. The Pope himself is thought to regard the 20th century as a period in which evil reigned and which may, therefore, be a prelude to the Christian millennium.

But away from such visions, the big question is: what now is the true condition of the Earth? Have the end-timers cried "Wolf!" once too often? After thousands of years of burning conviction that the end was nigh, is it reasonable now to relax?

Of course not. On the one hand, we are still as imaginatively seduced as we ever were by the idea of the apocalypse. Because we, individually, end, we naturally tend to make up stories about how the world will end. Such tales are consoling; they seem to say that, even in death, we are not alone. On the other hand, some stories are true and it is always worthwhile to be reminded of the fragility of our occupation of this planet. Look at the extraordinary phenomenon of the millennium bug. Computers have always been built - as an economy measure - with just two figures to represent the year. When they reach 2000, therefore, they will be lost, "thinking" it is 1900 or simply crashing in confusion. This is not easily repaired, because even the newest computer is not really new at all: its software is a botched-up, patched-up, lashed-together mess, each new development having simply been glued on top of the last. So the date problem runs all the way down to the bottom of the system. Correct it at the top and it will still go wrong further down.

Furthermore, for no good reason, even the chips in toasters, Hoovers, kettles and every other "advanced" gadget have dates encoded in them. So they too are liable to greet the new millennium with an apocalyptic shrug.

Nothing may happen and, even if it does, it is unlikely to be the end of the world - though it could be pretty bad with food, water and electricity supplies disrupted. But the point is that it draws attention to a new chink in our armour. For, as we wire ourselves together, we become increasingly helpless when the machine stops. Our lives, we suddenly realise, are dependent on systems that nobody can possibly understand. The purchase of a loaf of bread is dependent on the correct positioning of billions of electrons within the shop's computers. All of this works because of quantum theory. No one person will understand the company's software. Nobody knows what an electron is and nobody really understands quantum theory, many believing it is either wrong or radically incomplete. The loaf buyer is awash on a sea of ignorance; his bread is pure luck. So far, the loaf has always there, so we relax. When the electrons revolt, as the millennium bug suggests they might, we shall not have the faintest idea how to feed ourselves.

In fact, precisely this state of affairs was predicted in a book called Technojolies, Technofolies?, published in 1988 by the French writer Yves Lasfargue. He called these new faults "microbreakdowns". Computers run on millions of lines of code, written by fallible people. Errors are inevitable. Some will be harmless, some irritating and a few catastrophic. And now that computers are linked globally, irritations and catastrophes can be magnified globally. Computer viruses have shown the power of the network. One destructive line of code written in, say, San Francisco can cause mischief anywhere in the world. As the human world becomes one, it also becomes easier to kill.

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